Wilson used to own a masterpiece. Now it’s lost.

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Wilson used to own a masterpiece. Now it’s lost.

Courtesy of Pamela Gardner

Courtesy of Pamela Gardner

Courtesy of Pamela Gardner

Anna Arnsberger

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It’s the mid-1900s and a coveted 130 year-old painting worth a considerable amount of money is donated to a respected public institution. The massive portrait, much fancier than its surroundings, is far too grand to overlook. Yet somehow it manages to disappear without a trace. 

This seems like a classic plot for any whodunnit puzzle or detective thriller. But what appears to be a fictional scenario is a real mystery at Wilson.

In 1938, Wilson acquired a full-length, 10-by-5-foot portrait of suffragist Susan B. Anthony. Anthony stood larger than life, with dignified poise, donning her signature shawl and a book in hand. Encased in gold frame and gold-lined shadow box, the piece was valued at more money than the suffragists who sought to obtain it could afford. The lavish antique was likely the shining jewel of Wilson—that is, until it went missing. 

Anthony’s portrait seemed to have disappeared from recent memory until several years ago when Linda Steinberg, a volunteer at the Susan B. Anthony Museum and House in Rochester, NY, found the piece mentioned in an article from the March 1931 issue of the women’s rights periodical “Woman’s Journal.” 

The article revealed that the portrait was painted by Jerome Uhl in 1890, but he died before settling who would purchase the costly piece. Thus began 40 years of passing the artwork between hands before it finally made its way to Wilson. 

The painting had been put in storage following Uhl’s death and was set to be auctioned off. Anna Hendley, president of the Anthony League, postponed the auction and raised a small sum of money, persuading the auctioneer to let her purchase it. After hanging the portrait in the Shoreham Hotel, it continued to move around until 1930, when it was presented to the National League of Women Voters for its final resting place. 

Hoping to recover the painting by 2020, the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment and Anthony’s 200th birthday, Steinberg resumed her search for the painting. She came across a clipping from the Washington Evening Star mentioning that the portrait was donated to Wilson in 1938. After Steinberg reached out to Wilson, librarian Pamela Lipscomb-Gardner took it upon herself to conduct the local hunt for the painting. 

Gardner went back to her archive of past Beacons, and found an article from May 1938, reporting on Wilson’s acquisition of the painting. According to the article, Hendley presented the painting to Henry Doyle, president of the Board of Education, who handed it over to Wilson principal Norman Nelson. A number of prominent guests attended the formal presentation ceremony which recognized Woodrow Wilson’s work supporting women’s suffrage. 

But that’s where all records of the painting seem to end. Eager for an answer, Gardner went on to ask around the building. “I looked for it, I scoured the school, nobody knows about it,” she said. Gardner, who attended Wilson in the 70s, mentioned the painting on her alumni Facebook page, but has no recollection of the painting from her time as a student. 

When I joined the puzzling search, I had no better luck than Gardner. Not a single person in the building had heard of the painting, and my communications with former principals turned up nothing. The more people I asked about the missing art, the more I was faced with dropped jaws and further questions. I contacted the National League of Women Voters and the Sumner Museum, which holds all DCPS archives, but neither were able to provide valuable information. Just like the experts before me, I was thoroughly stumped. 

So it’s with all these dead ends, that we turn the search over to you, the Wilson community. With millions of dollars and eternal glory possibly on the line, perhaps one of our loyal readers will be the next to uncover a clue about where the portrait went. But until then, the disappearance of Susan B. Anthony will go down as one of the greatest mysteries of Wilson High School.